Story Title: “The Black Panther!”
Published: 12 April 1966 (cover-dated July 1966)
Story Title: “The Way It Began…!”
Published: 10 May 1966 (cover-dated August 1966)
The popular story behind the Fantastic Four is that Marvel Comics head honcho Martin Goodman wanted then-editor Stan Lee to create a superhero team in response to DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Lee used the opportunity to create stories and characters that appealed to him and drafted a quick synopsis of a dysfunctional superhero family for legendary Jack Kirby to work on, thus creating the “Marvel Method” of writer/artist collaboration. While Kirby disputed this story, the two are credited as co-creators of Marvel’s First Family – Doctor Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic, Susan Storm/The Invisible Girl, and her brother Johnny, the Human Torch, and Ben Grimm/The Thing – whose comic books eventually introduced characters and concepts that would forever impact Marvel Comics. One such character was T’Challa, the Black Panther, whose name and appearance actually predate the Black Panther Party in a strange coincidence; initially dubbed the Coal Tiger in Kirby’s concept art and briefly flirting with the name Black Leopard, the Black Panther is notable for being the first-ever black superpowered character in comic books. Like the Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby disputed which of them came up with the character and concept of the Black Panther, though both claimed to have created the character out of a desire to include more racial diversity in their publications. Soon after his debut appearance, the Black Panther made several guest appearances in numerous Marvel Comics before hits first critically acclaimed series and graduating to a short-lived solo title in 1977. The Black Panther became a pretty consistent presence in Marvel’s line-up, building his own supporting cast, joining the Avengers, forming the super secret superhuman cabal known as the Illuminati, and featuring in a number of pivotal Marvel events and politically charged storylines. The Black Panther is also no stranger to adaptation, featuring in the 1994 Fantastic Four cartoon, getting his own Marvel Knights motion comic series, and being brought to life in live-action by the late Chadwick Boseman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) proved to be a spectacular critical and commercial success and, as the sequel is due out this Friday, this seems like a great excuse to revisit his debut story arc.
“The Black Panther!” opens with three of the Fantastic Four (Reed, Sue, and Ben) flying through the skies of New York City in a fancy, high-tech craft unexpectedly gifted to Reed by a mysterious African chieftain known only as the Black Panther. Powered by magnetic waves, the ship is extremely nimble and manoeuvrable, but Ben is less than thrilled by the experience, which makes him more than a little air sick (to the surprise of even Sue, since Ben is an ex-air force pilot). After concluding their little joyride, the three land on the roof of the Baxter Building to chat with the Black Panther’s emissary; the enigmatic robed ambassador allows them to keep the futuristic craft if they accept an invitation to join the Black Panther (who goes unnamed beyond this throughout the arc) as honoured guests in the kingdom of Wakanda, where “the greatest hunt of all time” will be held in honour of their visit. Marvelling at the Wakandan’s clearly advanced technology and eager to see more, and noting that the team could do with a vacation, Reed accepts to invitation and the emissary sends word back to his nation using a peculiar communication device that uses “Cosmic Channel Waves” to instantaneously send messages across the globe. In the faraway jungle city of Wakanda, the chieftain rejoices at having correctly guessed that his invitation would be accepted and enters a vast, highly advanced bunker held within a colossal stone statue of a panther where he garbs the sleek, form-fitting “stalking costume” of the Black Panther to prepare for the team’s arrival.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the story switches over to Johnny Storm, who’s stressing over his recent exams when his teammates literally drop in on him to bring him along on their trip. Unfortunately for me (but not, as we’ll see, the team or the plot), Johnny asks to bring his roommate, college athlete Wyatt Wingfoot (one of comic’s most boring and unnecessary characters) along as well. Johnny is grateful for the distraction, however, as it keeps him from pining over Crystalia Amaquelin, a beautiful Inhuman girl he recently met who’s currently trapped (alongside the rest of her race) behind an impenetrable barrier (the story even briefly cuts away to show that all of the Inhumans’ incredible powers are as nothing compared to the “Negative Zone” shell that the mad Inhuman, Maximus Boltagon, has sealed them within). Once the team enter Wakanda, they’re both in awe, and suspicious, of the lush, verdant jungle that greets them. Although Wakanda shows no signs of industrialism or human pollution, it is merely a façade for the sprawling, technical jungle made up of a veritable chaos of computer dynamos, mechanical apparatus, and elaborate tubes and wires. Naturally, Reed is enthralled at the scientific wonders on display, but he tempers this with caution, which is only ignited when their guide suddenly spirits away to an elevator. Unimpressed with the wonderous technology surrounding them and suspecting a double-cross, the Thing leaps into action without hesitation and suffers a massive electric shock that leaves him “as weak as a blamed Yancy Streeter” (because we had to constantly have those Yancy Street references in Ben’s dialogue back then) and thus vulnerable when the Black Panther suddenly strikes to begin the great hunt…with the Fantastic Four as the prey! The Black Panther easily dodges Mr. Fantastic’s elongated fist, and just as easily tricks the Human Torch into flying into a fireproof trap that subdues him with an asbestos lining and powerful vacuum blasts. While the Black Panther watches them from the shadows, the Thing recuperates his strength and Wyatt and Reed stress that they need to think ahead as they have no idea what other boobytraps await them. In an effort to be useful and put his Native American ancestry to good use, Wyatt runs off to scout the area, meaning he’s not around when Wakandan soldiers suddenly rush in and blast Reed, Sue, and Ben with “magnetic polarity guns” that cause them to violently repel off each other like human pinballs.
Though the Invisible Girl tries to outwit their pursuer by turning invisible, the Black Panther’s keen senses easily lead him to her and he’s so fast that he’s able to leap inside of her forcefield as she’s raising it and render her unconscious with a blast of sleep gas. Rather than heed Wyatt and Reed’s suggestion, the Thing stops for a drink of water and finds his strength sapped once more, allowing the Black Panther (who boasts of being the continent’s boxing champion) to go toe-to-toe with him. In the end, though, it’s Ben’s impulsive nature that is his undoing as he blindly charges into a refrigeration unit and ends up frozen solid! Somehow, Wyatt stumbles across a hidden observation post and makes short work of those stationed there (though, realistically, you’d think Wakanda’s soldiers would stand more of a chance against some roided-up football star…), trashing the equipment to disrupt the Black Panther’s communications, but it’s of little consequence to the chieftain’s battle with Mr. Fantastic. Plunging the room into complete darkness, the Black Panther easily out-fights the elasticated scientist and successfully completes his hunt by trapping Reed in titanium cuffs. However, the Back Panther’s hard-fought victory is short lived as Wyatt frees Johnny from his trap, catching him completely off-guard; he’s even more off balanced when the entire team regroups around him, their strength restored and free from their confinement thanks to Wyatt and Johnny. Outnumbered and humbled in defeat, the Black Panther unmasks with the promise of revealing his motives and explaining his tragic origin story; this is related in “The Way It Began…!”, which finds the five being treated to a traditional Wakandan ceremony of friendship. Again, while the others are in awe of Wakanda’s technology and self-sufficient, primitive ways, the Thing is unimpressed and rudely dismissive of the Black Panther’s origin story since he’s seen it a hundred times in films and books about Tarzan. While casually lighting up a cigarette, the Black Panther regales them with the story of his warrior king father, T’Chaka, who pledged his life to defending the people’s virtually inexhaustible supply of super rare, super expensive, super absorbent “Vibranium”. However, when the unscrupulous mercenary known as Klaw, Master of Sound, led heavily armed goons into Wakanda to steal the Vibranium and power his “sound transformer” (which would let him change sound waves into any living form he can conceive), T’Chaka was brutally gunned down for opposing him. Despite the Wakandan’s advanced technology and tribal lifestyle, they are a largely peaceful nation and had no defence against Klaw’s machine guns and T’Chaka’s entourage are mercilessly gunned down, leaving only the young prince to stand against them.
As Klaw and his men burned down the village and slaughtered everyone, the grief-stricken youth turned Klaw’s sound blaster against him, destroying their weapons, damaging Klaw’s hand, and finally driving him from their lands in humiliation and defeat. Now, ten years later, the Black Panther has amassed a vast fortune from selling Vibranium to “various scientific foundations”, constructed his elaborate mechanised jungle “for a lark” to test his skills, and relates that his incredible superhuman abilities and senses come from special herbs and rigorous secret rituals. After a lifetime of preparation, he decided to hone all of his skills against the “supreme test”, the Fantastic Four, so that he’d know that he was truly ready to battle Klaw once more. Although the Black Panther knew that Klaw was planning to return at some point, the so-called Master of Sound conveniently makes his return in suitably dramatic fashion right as this origin story is wrapped up with a massive red gorilla made entirely of sound waves. Despite Wakanda’s best efforts, the beast absorbs any attack and hurls it back as a pure, devastating rush of destructive sound waves. Now that they’re all on the same page, the Fantastic Four (and Wyatt…) leap into action alongside the Black Panther to combat the beast, which shows no fear of the Human Torch’s flames and blasts the Thing aside with a sonic boom, completely invulnerable to conventional attack as it’s comprised of living sound and simply strikes back with a magnified version of whatever force is thrown at it. Rather than attack the creature head-on, the Black Panther goes directly to the most likely source of its creation, a large cave kitted out with more of Kirby’s bizarre mechanical art. There, he finds Klaw, now sporting a “force glove” in place of his shattered hand and the final version of his diabolical master conversion system, which allows him to sic a panther of pure sound energy onto his foe! Although the Thing is unable to triumph over another of Klaw’s creatures, this one a massive elephant, the Black Panther actually battles the panther to a standstill, much to Klaw’s shock. However, Klaw’s attempt to blast the Black Panther with his force glove results only in his beloved machine being destroyed, taking the entire cave and all his creatures with it. Finding solace in the defeat of his father’s killer, the Black Panther is encouraged to use his fortune and abilities to serve all of humanity rather than give up his crusade for justice. And what of Klaw? Defeated, humiliated, and desperate for revenge, he plunges into the master convertor and willingly transforms himself into a being of pure sound so that he may avenge himself on the Black Panther another day.
This two-issue story arc did a decent job of introducing readers to this striking new character; clad all in black and sporting a superhuman agility and intelligence that is a cut above most Marvel characters, the Black Panther certainly makes an impression even beyond his race. Most prominently, he’s smart and capable enough to lure in the Fantastic Four (which includes one of Marvel’s smartest characters and is easily one of their most powerful and tightly-knit groups) and subdue them with relative ease thanks to his abilities and extensive research into the group. What better way to introduce a new character than by having him best the Fantastic Four, and not just through convenient or overpowered means but by using his wiles? Indeed, while the Black Panther’s abilities are somewhat vague (he boasts of his boxing prowess, agility, and keen senses but they’re not as dramatically on show as you might think) and Wakanda’s technology is seen as wonderous and almost magical, neither of these are explored in much detail so the Black Panther’s accomplishments seem more like skill than him being unnecessarily overpowered. Interestingly, there’s very little social commentary on the Black Panther’s race; Reed and the others are awestruck by Wakanda’s wealth and power and the mixture of traditions and technology, but never does anyone express incredulity that a Black man or a race of Black people could be powerful adversaries or allies. Even the Thing’s unimpressed demeanour is based more on his familiarity with pulp media rather than a disbelief in a Black man’s capabilities, and the entire experience is seen as an eye opening excursion for the team, who are completely caught off guard by how prosperous and dangerous such an out of the way nation is. Similarly, unlike many Black characters (and other characters at this time, particularly women and teenagers), the Black Panther and his cohorts never speak in some stereotypically contrived fashion; there’s no jive talk, no street slang, and no creole to depict them as being “lesser” or one-dimensional clichés and, instead, Wakanda is depicted as a place of very sacred traditions and an almost fantastical place with its mixture of technology and tribal customs.
Although it seems like there’s a strange juxtaposition with this as Wakanda is comprised of a warrior race who wield both spears and special weapons and fully capable of creating these amazing technological wonders, but they’re easily gunned down by Klaw’s assault rifles and weapons, it’s clear that Wakanda has only fortified their defences and technology in the ten years since T’Challa’s death and that things were considerably less advanced before the chieftain’s son began accumulating his wealth and knowledge. There was a lot to like here; the action was fun, particularly in the Black Panther’s methods in subduing the Fantastic Four, and, while Sue often spouts some air-headed dialogue, it’s nowhere near as bad as the blatantly sexist and dismissive shit she normally says. If there are downsides, it’s Kirby’s surreal art (I’m not really a big fan of his overly elaborate and incomprehensible backgrounds) and the presence of Wyatt Wingfoot, who sticks out like a sore thumb and has no place running around with the Fantastic Four. He offers absolutely nothing to the story and he’s really just there to rescue the four after they’re subdued by the Black Panther, which seems incredibly lazy to me and completely unnecessary as the Black Panther later reveals that he had no evil intentions towards the team and probably would’ve set them free anyway. Klaw is also a pretty uninspiring and unnecessarily grandiose villain who basically amounts to a glorified ivory trader. He easily guns down T’Challa’s forces with his automatic weapons and the Black Panther’s entire mission is based on wanting to avenge his father’s death at the mercenary’s hands, but he doesn’t really have a visually interesting look (even after acquiring his metal hand…weapon…thing) and his sound creatures seemed overly cartoony. He’s basically just there to give the Black Panther and the Fantastic Four someone to fight against, spawning unbeatable sound creatures, and allowing the Black Panther to end the threat and thus further paint him as a formidable force. It’s a great cathartic moment for the new hero, for sure, but not a particularly interesting villain to pit him against and Klaw’s aspirations are ended pretty easily. These criticisms aside, the two issues are very enjoyable and it’s easy to see readers being interested to learn more about the Black Panther (whose true name we never learn) and Wakanda (whose society and traditions and technology are just barely touched upon), and I liked seeing the team completely overwhelmed by first his abilities and then Klaw’s sound monsters. For all their smarts and bluster, the Fantastic Four were very much on the back foot here, allowing the Black Panther to take the spotlight, and it went a long way to humbling the team and debuting this visually interesting character in a dynamic way.
What did you think to the Black Panther’s debut story arc? Did you enjoy seeing him running circles around the Fantastic Four or do you think he was a little too good in his first appearance? What did you think to Wakanda and Jack Kirby’s artwork? Are you a fan of Klaw or do you agree that he’s quite an underwhelming villain? What are your thoughts on Wyatt Wingfoot and the Inhumans sub-plot that both appeared in the comics at the time? What are some of your favourite Black Panther stories or moments? Whatever your thoughts on Black Panther, sign up to leave them below or drop a comment on my social media and be sure to check back in for more Fantastic Four and Black Panther content throughout November.
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